When I write guys in prison, I can picture their cells. I’ve seen plenty during cell-front visits over the years, my nose pressed to the wired glass as we talk. Some homies have even drawn for me their meager cinderblock homes: where they sit, where they shit and sleep, where they’ve taped up the photo I sent to them, the one of us fishing here on the Skagit River before they got arrested again. We write long, old-fashioned letters to stay in touch, fold them into envelopes, and open them in our separate solitudes.
So I can’t help but be aware of your spaces as I write to you both.
Your address, Murph, I know like my own: 1868 N 1st Ave Upland, CA 91784. I could give a tour of your childhood bedroom where friends like me squeeze into your old twin bed at 3am, too tipsy to drive. Next door is the little study you’re probably in now, the former junk room confiscated from your mother when you began your PhD. I remember the late December evening we sat on the floor in there, confessing to each other that we’d started writing, and that, well, maybe we could read a bit to each other.
Like I said, I know your space well.
Less often do I see your pad, Wuck: the high-ceilinged, tightly-arranged apartment in Brooklyn. It was good for me to crash there last fall on my way through NYC, to see where you write your songs, where you watch the Dodger game, where you’re reading all those books.
Both of you, I think, have poked your heads in here too—my converted mudroom study—during your brief visits to the Northwest. I turn in my chair now and see it differently, as if through your eyes.
You’d both zero in on the large photo of all of us, I think, stretched onto a framed canvas and newly hung above the door. You know the one: the thirteen of us arranged in a tableau unmistakably like Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the restaurant otherwise empty. I didn’t get it at the moment, unwrapping it this past December, but now it makes sense that I was the one to receive it during our most recent Guy Night: I’m the religious guy.
As I welcome your eyes in here another minute, I next see how many icons I have on my walls: crude and ancient art of the early Christian movement, later renditions of the saints in earthen tones, Lazarus unwrapped by friends at the open tomb, Christ’s hands forever extending toward others. I have these taped to my walls between art sent to me from those lockdown cells: pencil-shaded murals of guns and meth, prison bars and suicide, sad and happy harlequin masks, a baby daughter with a bow on her head. There’s also Chagall’s angel interrupting Abraham’s knife above Isaac, Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, photos of homies I’ve loved—some holding up fresh-caught salmon, some holding up gang signs, some laying hands of prayer on another homie at his wedding, everyone in collars and ties or Dickies plaid. And now there’s a blossoming patch of family photos—Rachel and little Abram smiling back at me—here behind my banker’s lamp, between scribbled quotes from my favorite monks. These photos and drawings are all memory aids, like the Orthodox icons. They remind me of the stories that brought me this far.
Volunteering at a jail up here after my lonesome years at Berkeley, I found myself not just praying with guys in visitation cells, but laughing together, sharing stories late into the night, just two or three of us. When they were sentenced and shipped off to far-flung correctional hells, they held onto my address. Through those letters, I got to know these gang members and drug dealers more deeply than most of my friends from childhood, high school, or college. I wasn’t trying to become a minister. It’s just where I found a richer communion.
But—and this is part of a longer story I haven’t yet told either of you—things have changed. The last couple years have been terrible. I’ve gotten hurt. As dearly as I love so many of them, I can’t keep making the charming and traumatized guys cycling in or out of prison my closest circle of friends. I just can’t.
I turn in my chair to look again at this Last Supper: my hometown buddies I see maybe once a year, a fraternity as secular as they come. I realize I’ve experienced a communion among you guys longer than I have with any church I’ve belonged to, longer than any ministry organization or chaplaincy post or prison to which I’ve given years of my life. It’s significant. But when I fly south during Christmastime for Guy Night, or when we chat throughout the year on The Dodger Thread, I sometimes feel like a flat background character in an ensemble sitcom, just making my expected appearance and laughing along until next time. As we get older, I realize I crave something more: a space that’s large enough to hold who we’ve become and long enough to embrace our separate stories as they unfold in the present. That’ll never happen in a text thread or at our once-a-year Guy Night rumpus.
So, Wuck, when you texted just me and Murph a couple days ago with this out-of-nowhere proposal—“wanna write letters?”—I don’t remember if I texted you a yes. I just started this letter.
I’m not entirely clear why you want to write with us, but I thought I’d start by sharing—or, really, realizing even as I type this—why I’m in. I’m curious what might happen here—in this shared space—where two or three are <quote-01>gathered?<quote-01>
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